In Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross, there is a scene where “capitalists” attend a devil’s banquet to participate in a bizarre competition.
Who has the best money-making scheme? The participants, tycoons of all types, tout truly bizarre schemes. One fellow tells of his plan to import foreign air and sell it to the masses.
The competitors’ greed is so great that it has not only distorted them physically, but also, alarmingly, made them caricatures of human nature.
Their conscience has been corrupted by insatiable greed. The novel is a searing critique of capitalism, and also a warning about the pathology of greed and its effects on society.
We laugh at the ridiculousness of the schemes in the novel, and think: What bizarrely improbable characters and schemes! We fail to see the frightening similarities between the fiction in the novel and the reality of modern Kenya.
There may be no one packaging air in sachets, but we package deadly liquor in similar containers. No one intends to sell soil in boxes, but we steal children’s playing fields and gas them unconscious when they protest the theft. We sell poisonous sugar and rice and maize, and fake medicines.
We may not be selling packaged soil, but we sell land in water towers and forests, killing ourselves slowly. We have become merchants of death.
The characters in Devil on the Cross sell or intend to sell air, soil and sexual organs, we sell death by the sachet-full.
In Kenya, government officials and politicians who are supposed to take care of and improve our welfare, use their positions to carry out grand thievery.
In the Goldenberg scam, fellows pretended to sell gold and the government paid them billions of shillings. In the Anglo-Leasing heist, ghosts were paid billions of shillings for the provision of nothing.
We have had situations where wheelbarrows cost a fortune and Bic pens tens of thousands of shillings.
Could these magic wheelbarrows and pens have been advertised as being able to transport stuff or write on their own? This scheme would have offered stiff competition to the sellers of soil and air at the devil’s banquet in Devil on the Cross.
Kenyan Members of Parliament can decide their own pay and benefits packages. So every now and then, they award themselves salary increments and benefits that are today the highest in the world.
To inform the latest award of Ksh250,000 ($2,500) house allowance for each MP every month, a parliamentary delegation took a benchmarking trip to New Zealand.
They failed to notice that New Zealand, a country of five million people, has a GDP thrice that of Kenya and a standard of living a hundred times better. The delegation should have benchmarked how such a small country is able to achieve so much.
MPs say that the reason they need so much money is because they help their constituents with medical bills and school fees. But poverty can never be eliminated by these handouts.
Poverty is eradicated by prudent use of public resources, by investments in education and health and agriculture, by innovation and efficiency, etc. No country has ever stolen itself out of poverty.
If stealing from the public and then giving them small handouts were sound economic policy, then Africa should be the richest not the poorest continent in the world.
In a TV interview, Justin Muturi, the Speaker of the National Assembly, a man not known for great moral character or intellectual ability, gave another unsurprisingly hare-brained reason for the insatiable appetite for public money among MPs.
Look, he said, we only want what other public officials have. Then he expressed concern about the alarmingly high public wage bill.
If he were truly concerned about the public wage bill, most of which goes to pamper state officials, would it not have been more consistent with that concern if parliament advocated reduction in pay across the board? But that would be the intelligent and moral attitude, and MPs have long lost both.
In Devil on the Cross, two members of the public decide that the schemes boasted about are illegal and harmful to the country. They call the police to arrest the competitors. But the police arrest those complaining about the schemes.
A few days ago, Boniface Mwangi, a journalist and activist, was arrested for calling for an end to the robbing of a country by its own government.
Is life imitating fiction or is fiction imitating life? Or is fiction real life in disguise?
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.